Learning from the Pacific Rim
tsunami alert model 

Tad Murty, internationally-renowned oceanographer and tsunami expert, is keen on setting up a warning facility in India. He explains its dimensions to PRAKASH M SWAMY

What is India News Service

NEW YORK: Dr Tadepalli Sathya Narayana Murty, or Tad Murty as he is known to the scientific world, is a research scientist associated with University of Manitoba in Winnipeg, Canada.

In an exclusive telephone interview from Ottawa, he said nothing would give him greater satisfaction than helping India in setting up a system that would warn of an impending disaster.

“I am keen on investing my time and expertise if the Indian government wants my service and will not charge any consultation or professional fees in helping my motherland at this desperate need of the hour,” he said in a choked voice, still unable to come to grips with the catastrophe that claimed over 100,000 lives in Asia, including in his native Andhra Pradesh.

The tsunami warning system can’t be set up for India alone but it should be a combined effort for 30-odd countries in the entire Indian Ocean Rim all the way from Australia to Africa. For instance, the Pacific Ocean Rim warning system serves 26 nations. “It’s not country specific. It is meant for all the nations which share a common coastline,” he said.

Murty feels it would be a good idea if the system were established under the aegis of Inter-Governmental Oceanography Commission of the UNESCO.
India and Australia are perhaps the only two scientifically advanced countries in the Indian Ocean Rim and India being most populous of the nations should take the lead. New Delhi should call for a meeting of representatives of all the coastal nations which could form part of the steering committee. India can’t and shouldn’t go it alone but in collaboration with all the coastal countries that share a common coast line.

"Although tsunamis are rare in the Indian Ocean, as compared to the Pacific, the time has come to establish a full-fledged warning center," he said. "If it had been as frequent as in Pacific, I am sure by this time, the warning system would have been in place."

Though a lot of work and aid came from the US for the Pacific tsunami warning system, it operates under the aegis of the UN system that also contributes funds for the project and to the pool of resources collected from member countries.

Vishakhapatnam ideal

India is sitting on top of the Indian Ocean in the center and there are several countries to the left and right of India. Visakhapatnam has a major port and the proposed center could be set up there and be part of the India Meteorological Centre or, even better, part of the National Institute of Oceanography, which comes under the Council for Scientific and Industrial System and has a lab in Visakhapatnam.

“I have not sent any proposal to the government of India. However, each time I met with my professional colleagues in India, be they from Meteorological Department, Geological Survey of India, Department of Oceanography or Council of Scientific and Industrial Research, I strongly advocated the importance of installing a tsunami warning system, preferably in Visakhapatnam in Andhra Pradesh,” he said.

What has been the response to his suggestions so far and have they fallen on deaf ears?

“No, they too had realized the importance of establishing the center and our scientists are second to none in professionalism. The tsunami being a very rare phenomenon in this part of the world, I guess they had problems selling the concept to the government or the bureaucracy. I can assure you that our scientists are neither reluctant nor ignorant of the gravity of the situation. I would not blame the Indian scientists at all,” he said.

He felt that there could have been other urgent issues for the powers-that-be. If scientists give an estimate of several million dollars to set up a center for a disaster that could happen once in 50 years, the chances of rejection are very high.

Monsoon floods or cyclones occur every year and naturally the government takes more interest in them. "I don’t see any politics or laxity in the issue but unfortunately when tsunami hits the coast it’s devastating. I had emphasized on every single working-level scientist I met the need for a tsunami warning system in India. I don’t know any politician back home to convince them of the need to set up one. I am not blaming anyone in the Indian government but feel sorry for what has happened. Unfortunately, scientists do not have the clout to sell the concept. The Indian scientists are also frustrated and feel sorry that they could not do much to mitigate the calamity. If a tsunami had struck every year, the government could have listened to them,” he said.

The Pacific Rim model

The Pacific Rim system is working extremely well since 1965 and the annual expenditure comes to a few million dollars mostly by way of salaries, equipment upgrades and supplies. Over a third of the world’s population lives along the Indian Ocean and it is imperative to set up a warning center in the region.

The project involves setting up of various sub-committees. There could be one with experts on subjects like earthquake who will look into the seismograph network. It would check whether the existing network is adequate for ocean earthquakes, or whether a few more gauges are necessary. The second subcommittee could consist of oceanography experts to look at a tide-gauge network that would monitor the sea-level waves.

There may be several tide-gauges in the Indian Ocean and the committee would study whether they need to add some more for optimum results. Besides the instrumental support calls for the setting up of a round-the-clock tsunami warning center for the whole rim at one place.

Although the staff will be from India, the facility would represent all the countries who would contribute annually for the maintenance of the center. The center will have a staff strength of 25 to 30 who would be working in three shifts of eight hours and function all through the year without any break. The center would be linked to a satellite for real-time communication to seismographic and tide-gauge networks, and also to emergency management and preparedness teams for early warning and evacuation.

One seismologist and an oceanographer along with computer experts and communication specialists should man the center all the time as tsunami could strike anytime of the year.

A third sub-committee would take care of computer modeling for all the member-nations. India with its superiority in Information Technology is an ideal place to set up a computer modeling sub-station.

The computer modules would look at likely places of earthquakes and run a series of computer models to propagate the tsunami that it generated to the coastlines of all the member-countries to see how fast these waves travel and what would be the height of the waves. It’s a computer simulation with dozens of scenarios. All the simulation data would be stored in the warning center’s database that is available to the staff manning the center. When a real event happens, within 15 minutes the seismologist connected to the real-time seismographic network would be able to determine how large the impending earthquake would be, Murty explained.

Once the oceanographer gets to know the details, he could then decide how the tsunami energy would spread, how long it would take for the waves to travel to participating countries, and the amplitude of waves. Based on the data, the scientist manning the station would decide whether it calls for emergency evacuation or a mere alert and warning. Each country would have six to eight designated disaster management experts who would be contacted in case of a emergency.

The tsunami can occur anytime of the year and has nothing like a season. This is how the Pacific Tsunami warning system works and others should be set up on similar lines, he added.

Who will foot the bill?
On the cost of the Indian Ocean Rim Project, he said the UNDP could fund such projects and it’s not necessary that they have to be borne entirely by the member-nations since one-third of the world’s population lives in the region. The UN has a clout and could seek the financial support from the US, the UK and Japan in setting up a center in the Indian Ocean, he suggested.

“As a citizen and director of National Tidal Laboratory of Australia, I am trying to develop a warning system for that country and I have professional contacts in countries such as Myanmar, Malaysia, Indonesia, Bangladesh, Thailand, Sri Lanka and Pakistan. All these nations are keen on joining the Indian Ocean Rim but the question is who is to bell the cat? There is no better country than India to take the lead,” Murty says. The Indian Foreign Minister should call for a high-level meeting to kick-start the process.

Also call some experts in the field to put together the center. Once the system is set up, the participating governments get at least three to four hours to evacuate people along the coast.

In the recent case, the tsunami reached the southern tip of Sri Lanka after two hours, South India after three hours, and the Andaman after four hours. It’s not that there was no forewarning. But there may be no apparent indication and the sea is calm even minutes before the eruption of waves, he added.

“Tide-gauge network would be able to predict tsunamis accurately and the extent of damage it can wreck and nothing else. We check the tide-gauge nearest to the earthquake in real-time. You don’t need to evacuate the entire country and computer models would indicate the points where tsunami would hit and only those areas should be evacuated. There would be enough time to do that. Suppose the waves are only one meter in height, there is no need to evacuate people. The computer models would be extremely detailed and would be an invaluable tool. We will know where to evacuate and when to evacuate.

Pacific Ocean is the largest and bigger than the Indian Ocean and Canada has the world’s longest coastline and Canada forms part of the Pacific Rim. “In the Pacific system, we have done it several times successfully avoiding human loss of life in Canada and states such as Washington, Hawaii, Alaska and Oregon in the US, thanks to the Pacific Rim system.”

Did the Pacific Rim facility have advance notice of the tsunami that struck Asia? Murty said the Alaska center tried to communicate what it knew to India out of sheer goodwill but could not inform anyone in the absence of precise contact details.

“Although their mandate is only the Pacific, yet they attempted to reach Indian authorities desperately. There was no official contact with India and the center and how would some one sitting in Alaska know who to contact in New Delhi or Chennai. I guess as a desperate measure, they must have randomly contacted some Indian friends or acquaintances to alert them. They did not contact me as this is not a Pacific Tsunami. The center did not have any telephone numbers or contacts on records on India to establish a contact.”

Explaining the phenomenon, he said earth plates underthrust each other or overthrust each other to create earthquakes and when that happens under water, it calls for closer monitoring. It’s not possible to monitor whether the plates are moving and in what direction even with the help of satellites.

Murty was born in tiny hamlet near the coastal town of Guntur in Andhra Pradesh and studied meteorology and Oceanography in Andhra University. He completed his graduate and doctoral courses at the University of Chicago and joined the Canadian Government in the Oceanographic Service and served 27 years. During his employment, he helped develop the Canadian Tsunami warning system.

“My role relates to the computer modeling component of the system. I took an early retirement and went to Australia as a director of the National Tidal Facility there for three years. I returned to Canada to work as a research scientist in University of Manitoba.”

Advisor to Andhra

Murty is also associated with the government of Andhra Pradesh as an expert in dealing with the state’s perennial problem of cyclones and floods. He developed a project that is nearing completion. In his view, Andhra Pradesh will have the most sophisticated computer module for cyclones and flooding, compared to any other Indian state. "The Andhra Pradesh government has invested a lot of time and money and invited national and international experts,” he said. The state has spent $10 million for the cyclone and river flooding projects.

"If a cyclone occurs today, Andhra Pradesh is more prepared than other states. I am also willing to help other states in a similar capacity. For instance, I got the Canadian government to aid Orissa to set up a cyclone warning system, he said.

He is also working with the Myanmar government on a cyclone project. In Bangladesh, he has been working with the government in setting up and maintaining a cyclone project for the past 25 years.

Has Tamil Nadu shown any interest? Murty said he had invited all the maritime states to a workshop in Orissa and some IAS officers from Tamil Nadu and other states had taken part. But no follow up had been made.

You need one warning system for each ocean. Since no one lives in the Artic Ocean there is no need for one there. Tsunamis are rare in the Atlantic and hence none have bothered to install one there.

India has seen several tsunami attacks and the last was in November 1945 in the Arabian Sea. A few hundred people were killed. The 1945 tsunami was bigger than the recent one. It had a 11.8 meter wave amplitude and luckily it did not hit Mumbai or Ahmedabad and the casualties were not huge. "My computer module shows that last week’s tsunami had the amplitude of a maximum of seven meters at the very southern tip of India. I had run several computer simulation modules for India before and after the disaster. It could have been higher in some places with the waves reaching up to the height of a Palmyra tree, mainly when water funnels into canals, inlets, gulfs and bays, he said.

Prakash M Swamy, Ph.D (USA), is Editor-in-Chief, The Urban Indian newsweekly, The Empire State Building, 350 Fifth Avenue, #2612, New York.